Wednesday, May 23, 2012

How to cope as New Delhi fumbles

One of the key characteristics of a failing state is the decline of central power and the need to engage multiple authorities.
India may as yet only be a stumbling, rather than a failing, state but already countries have decided that they need to engage the satraps, in addition to New Delhi. 
This is evident from the recent visits of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. 

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with West Bengal state Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee  
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with West Bengal state Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee

Last week, she was in Kolkata having a pow-wow with Mamata Banerjee and, less than a year ago in July 2011, she took the opportunity of an Indian visit to meet Jayalalithaa in Chennai.
In April, U.S. Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman made a well publicised visit to Patna to check out Nitish Kumar. Narendra Modi remains a problem, and currently, the only official contact the U.S. has with him is through their consul general in Mumbai.
In visiting Kolkata, Ms Clinton was killing two birds with one stone. First, she was sending a signal to that other alleged failing state, Bangladesh, that the U.S. could be an interlocutor for its interests with New Delhi.
Second, she was building bridges to a person who is likely to play an important role in Indian politics in the coming years. Just by-the-way, it was also a 'thank you' visit to a political formation which had bested America's bĂȘte noire in India, the arch 'anti-imperialist' Communist Party of India (Marxist).
The United States has always had a keen understanding of Indian regional politics. Some of its best scholars teach in American universities. Whether it is the Dravidian movement of Tamil Nadu, or the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Lohiaite politics of northern India, the U.S. has measured them all.
There have been allegations as well of U.S. covert support to one or the other of these entities in their turbulent history. But it is not every day that the U.S. singles out one of them for interest, as in the case of the Trinamool Congress.
The clearest signal that comes from these visits, therefore, is that the U.S. is watering down its expectations from the United Progressive Alliance government in New Delhi, and hedging its longer term bets.
The keen watchers that the American diplomats are, they could not have missed the fact that the UPA is unable to push through its legislative agenda, leave alone its governmental programme and that it seems to have run out of stamina.
The casualty here, first, is the nuclear liability bill through which the Americans had hoped to cash the monetary part of the payoff from the nuclear deal of 2008.
Then, there is the vexed issue of liberalisation of foreign direct investment in a range of areas from retail to insurance. Then, there is the issue of Afghanistan. Though India has obliged by entering into a strategic partnership pact with Kabul, well ahead of the U.S. itself, it is clear that New Delhi's appetite for a foreign commitment is not particularly strong.
While there is sufficient Indian self-interest to ensure a low level Indian commitment to the Karzai government, there isn't enough that would befit a wannabe world power.
One problem is Washington's own tendency of taking up issues almost whimsically. Whatever may have been the inner discussions, what emerged in the public seemed to indicate that the primary U.S. focus was Iran, with the bit about the U.S. bounty on Hafiz Saeed thrown in for good measure.
It is true though that the Indo-US agenda on many of the issues will form part of the Indo-US strategic dialogue in June.
The difficulties of the U.S. in comprehending the Indian future cannot be gainsayed. This is a period when the centre seems to be fraying in India. If the UPA is punch drunk with corruption charges and electoral losses, the NDA seems to be little better.
Foreign interlocutors complain about the lack of coherence in the government. Diplomats of one country, for example, told this writer that a bilateral dialogue was undermined because two Indian Cabinet ministers participating were working at cross-purposes.
There is no dearth of instances where it seems that the Union Cabinet functions as individuals, rather than a collective as they are meant to be. Indians have gotten used to the policy paralysis, but many foreign countries are learning about it now.
There is, in addition, the question of ministerial competence. Some of the issues which are bedeviling the Union government today are a result of poor handling by the respective ministers.
Take the case of the Teesta waters; surely the Union government should have undertaken systematic consultations with the West Bengal government on the issue prior to the PM's visit. Likewise, instead of simply announcing that a National Counter Terrorism Centre would be up and running by a certain date, the Home Ministry needed to have undertaken a thorough consultation with the states instead of a token conference that took place after several chief ministers protested.
When the Union government is weak, regional satraps flourish. This seems to have been India's story from time immemorial. We are an open society.
We cannot conceal our faultlines, or the differences between our leaders on policies and issues. We can hardly blame foreign countries from trying to use these as a lever to push their own interest in one particular area or the other.
The only way to fight this is to repair our own polity where the Union and the States play their role as assigned by the Constitution and convention.
But for this we need a leadership that does not rule by abdicating responsibility or kicking the can down the road.

Mail Today May 11, 2012

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